Story of My Father: A Memoir

Story of My Father: A Memoir

by Sue Miller

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In the fall of 1988, Sue Miller found herself caring for her father as he slipped into the grasp of Alzheimer's disease. She was, she claims, perhaps the least constitutionally suited of all her siblings to be in the role in which she suddenly found herself, and in The Story of My Father she grapples with the haunting memories of those final months and the larger narrative of her father's life. With compassion, self-scrutiny, and an urgency born of her own yearning to rescue her father's memory from the disorder and oblivion that marked his dying and death, Sue Miller takes us on an intensely personal journey that becomes, by virtue of her enormous gifts of observation, perception, and literary precision, a universal story of fathers and daughters.

James Nichols was a fourth-generation minister, a retired professor from Princeton Theological Seminary. Sue Miller brings her father brilliantly to life in these pages-his religious faith, his endless patience with his children, his gaiety and willingness to delight in the ridiculous, his singular gifts as a listener, and the rituals of church life that stayed with him through his final days. She recalls the bitter irony of watching him, a church historian, wrestle with a disease that inexorably lays waste to notions of time, history, and meaning. She recounts her struggle with doctors, her deep ambivalence about many of her own choices, and the difficulty of finding, continually, the humane and moral response to a disease whose special cruelty it is to dissolve particularities and to diminish, in so many ways, the humanity of those it strikes. She reflects, unforgettably, on the variable nature of memory, the paradox of trying to weave a truthful narrative from the threads of a dissolving life. And she offers stunning insight into her own life as both a daughter and a writer, two roles that swell together here in a poignant meditation on the consolations of storytelling.

With the care, restraint, and consummate skill that define her beloved and best-selling fiction, Sue Miller now gives us a rigorous, compassionate inventory of two lives, in a memoir destined to offer comfort to all sons and daughters struggling-as we all eventually must-to make peace with their fathers and with themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307432667
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 988,552
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, Inventing the Abbotts, and The Good Mother. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.


Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

November 29, 1943

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
SOME QUALITY in my father’s voice always changed when he spoke of my uncles—the one who’d been incarcerated in a federal prison in the Second World War, and the one who’d given a year of his life at that time to alternate service. I don’t remember now how or even whether my father explained their choices to me, or how I came to know what those choices were; but long before I understood any of that, I understood by the shift in my father’s voice how much he admired them. I understood that he believed they’d done the right thing, the hard thing.
They were conscientious objectors, my uncles, in a war that was seen as “good” and “just”—though they made their stand even before America entered that war, when they were required to register for the draft in 1940, the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history. Both of my uncles felt that even in a just war—perhaps especially in a just war— men should follow their conscience. Like my father, both were radical Christians. They believed that the Jesus who conceived of human life as having the potential for moral goodness was speaking of a necessary action to be taken when he called on his followers to love their enemies, to pray for those who persecuted them, to turn the other cheek to those who struck them.
And so my uncles acted. One of them refused to acknowledge that the state might have the right to command him to kill another human being and didn’t register at all; he was the one who went to jail. The other registered but asked to be exempted from that command on religious grounds and was given alternative service.
For years I didn’t think to question my father about his own choices during World War Two. I suppose I assumed, on those rare occasions when it might have occurred to me to think about it at all, that he had escaped the issue somehow because of having children—my older brother was born in August of 1941. I’m not sure when I learned he’d taken the exemption available to him as an ordained minister, or whether that too was just an assumption, accurate in this case. At any rate, it is what I finally assumed. And then further assumed that the tone of awe and admiration that rose in his voice for my uncles, and for his other pacifist friends who did what my uncles did, rose because he admired their greater courage, their greater conviction than his own. Certainly he never said anything that would have led me to think anything else.
After his death, though, I was sorting through the few papers he’d left behind and I came upon a letter that called up for question all of my assumptions. It was addressed to my father in October of 1940, and it was from another young man, also a minister, someone who must have believed—as, it became clear, my father had too—that when Christ spoke of loving your enemies, he was asking for something rather specific from you.
The letter said:
Dear Mr. Nichols: It was a great joy to learn that I am not the only person in this part of the country who has decided that there can be absolutely no compromise with conscription. Notice of your refusal to register and a copy of your statement to the registration board reached me by way of a clipping from the Dispatch sent by my parents in St. Paul.
The young man went on to ask about my father’s family’s attitude toward his position, to speak of the support he had from his family, to inquire about what the repercussions had been from my father’s employer, and ended:
More strength to you in your stand. Sincerely yours, Rev. Winslow Wilson.
I was stunned, reading this. Everything I’d understood about my father’s behavior at that time had been simply wrong. He had refused, my father! He had, in fact, taken the most extreme course possible in resisting and because of this had become, momentarily, a public person, written up in the St. Paul Dispatch. My father, modest, shy as he was, had made a difficult, unpopular, public stand.
And suddenly it seemed utterly right to me that resistance had been his wish, his intention. It made a kind of emotional sense that caused me to feel, instantly, how little sense my earlier more or less unframed assumptions had made. Of course! I thought. And with that thought it was as though my father stepped forward to meet me as he had been in 1940: twenty-five years old, newly married, teaching literature and history and religion at his first real job, as an assistant professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. That stage of his life—and he in it—had always been indistinct to me, as the lives of parents before their children exist always are to those children; but now, holding this letter in my hands, I remembered anew and vividly the numerous photographs in our family albums of him then—a slender young man, intense-looking and handsome, with a shock of dark hair swept back from his high forehead. A radical young man, it would seem. More radical in many ways than my own son was now. A young man ready, perhaps even eager, to embrace the fate his powerful beliefs were calling him to. Sitting there, I felt a rush of love and pity for him in his youth, in his passionate convictions—really, the same feeling I often had for my son when he argued his heartfelt positions. Abruptly, they seemed alike to me and equally dear: my father, my son. I felt as though my father had been waiting for this moment to be born to me as the young man he’d been, so touchingly willing to bear witness to his conscience; and the surprise of this new sense of him, this birth, was a gift to me, a sudden balm in those days of my most intense grief.
But what had called him back? What made him turn away from his choice?—which would have been hard, of course, but satisfying too, in the way that acting on our deepest feelings and commitments is always satisfying. What made him take the easier path, the one that kept him safe, home, out of prison—the exemption—but the path that also denied him the satisfaction of acting on his beliefs, that pride of bearing witness?
He’d kept another letter in the envelope with the one from the young Reverend Wilson, and this one I can’t quote from; it angered me so much that I threw it away after reading it. It was written a few months after Winslow Wilson’s, and it was from my grandfather, my mother’s father. It counseled my father against taking the path that beckoned him. As part of its argument, it pointed to my mother’s pregnancy—which she must just have discovered—and it suggested, terribly delicately, a kind of vulnerability, perhaps even a slight . . . instability . . . on her part, to which my father would be abandoning her and their child if he were imprisoned. Of course, the letter said, if my father truly felt this was the right thing to do, to ask my mother to manage this difficult situation, he and my grandmother (they lived nearby; he was the pastor of a large and prominent Minneapolis church) would do all they could to provide the support she would need in my father’s absence.
There was more. My grandfather called up the contract my father would be breaking with the college, the responsibilities he’d undertaken there that he would be abandoning; but again he affirmed his support, “of course,” if my father felt this was the right thing to do.
For fifty years my father had kept these two letters together, the one that embraced him in his decision and confirmed his choice to make his life a kind of witness to his faith and beliefs, and the other, which cautioned against it. And during all those years he’d spoken not a word of regret, of bitterness or sorrow, for the choice he’d made in the end. He’d never even made an accounting of that choice in my presence—as if in making his decision he’d lost forever the right to speak of the beliefs he hadn’t acted on.
I was sitting in my own sunny living room in Boston when I read these letters. I stayed there for a while, staring out at the red-brick church across the street, thinking about this new sense of my father and welcoming it. And then I remembered, I realized, that I in fact did have a written explanation he’d made of himself and of his choice.
I went up to my study and scrambled through my files of family papers until I found it. It was a homily my father had given at my older brother’s wedding. This is it, in its entirety:
There is a certain similarity between marriage and the Christian religion, which is suggested by the text in our gospel reading: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”
The dominant note at the beginning of marriage is the joy of mutual possessing, of a “choosing” triumphantly accomplished. And this is as it should be.
So in religion there is at the beginning often a searching and a choosing, an affirming of that good which one may serve with conviction. And this too is as it should be. But in time we see more. We become aware that our seeking and our choosing is not so self-determined as we had thought, but our response to a Seeker who had already found us. We come to understand that text: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”
So with marriage we understand more in time. Deeper than the joy of a “choosing” triumphantly fulfilled is the awareness of a need to be met, of a claim acknowledged. Few things are as potent to give meaning to life as the sense of answering a need and fulfilling a responsibility which no one else can meet.
It is wonderful indeed that we can choose and achieve our choice, but still more wonderful that we are chosen.
Reading the homily in this new context made it more moving to me than it had been the first times I’d read it. And like the revelation that my father would have chosen to resist conscription, it seemed suddenly right to me, more deeply right than before. It made me understand him. My father, a young impassioned man, had chosen twice, and twice he’d chosen in joy and triumph—his faith and my mother. And then it turned out that each of those two choices presented the “claim” to be “acknowledged” he spoke of in the homily. Further, it turned out that those claims, as construed by my grandfather and—I must assume—as accepted in that construction by my father, conflicted. My father had to find a way to reconcile them or to decide which claim took precedence. In the event, he honored the personal claim, the smaller, more private one, and never spoke of the decision again.
My older brother’s wedding, for which the homily was written, took place in 1968. Sixteen years later, when I was to be married for the second time, I asked my father to preside as minister at the ceremony; and, having checked with my brother and sister-in-law first, I asked him to read the same homily he’d read at their wedding, which I’d found so moving even without yet understanding its fullest implications in my father’s life.
My father said yes. But when the moment came for that part of the service, something seemed to go wrong in him. He held the paper in front of him, but he didn’t seem to be able to read it. I tried to indicate to him that it was all right—I leaned forward, I think I touched his arm. After a moment, his voice shaking, he spoke a few improvised words in place of the homily and then pronounced his blessing on us.


A Conversation with Sue Miller

Q: This is by far the most personal work you've written to date. Was it difficult to reveal your family to your readers?
I did feel some sense of responsibility about what I revealed about my family in this book. I tried to be very careful of those members of my family, mostly my siblings, who are still alive -- not to write anything which might wound one of them. I think there are things in the book which may, not because of the way they are presented, but rather that they are painful facts. I felt comfortable writing about my father because I thought he would have liked my making some use for other people out of his illness.

Q: Did you consider weaving elements of your father's life into a novel or short story instead of writing a nonfiction book about him?
In fact, I have woven elements of my father's life—and the lives of almost everyone I know! — into my fiction. I've even woven elements of his illness and the events that happened during his illness into my fiction. There's a section of THE DISTINGUISHED GUEST which I mention in the memoir in which I refer, fictionally, to the way he tore up all his letters to and from my mother. And in FOR LOVE I wrote a passage about my main character's taking dictation for a letter to herself from her mother, something which also happened to me and my father. There are no doubt others which aren't so closely imitative of life, and which I'm less conscious of.

Q: Your novels are beloved for their seamless and intertwined storylines. Was it difficult to find the narrative thread necessary to tell a real life story?
I would bepleased if what you say is true. And certainly one of the great difficulties for me in writing this book was structuring it. I threw away more than I kept, and I reordered everything I kept many times over. In the end, the book moves generally chronologically, but it stops and turns many times to look at issues raised by events going on; or history outside the chronology connected to other events. It took me literally years to figure out how I wanted to do this.

Q: Your parents were very dramatic people. Please tell us a little about them and their influence on your writing.
My mother was dramatic. My father was quiet and gentle, a little dry, certainly primarily intellectual. They made a dramatic contrast, though, and one I think everyone in my family was aware of. Both of them were wonderful writers, exacting and careful with language in very different ways. Both of them were passionate readers. Both believed in the power of language to move and console and redeem the listener, the reader. All of that was a gift to me as a writer.

Q: When you pieced together memories of your father, did you discover parts of him you'd forgotten or perhaps had never known?
A good deal of the book, particularly the last passages of the book, are taken up with this idea, that it is possible to go on learning about someone who has died, to change the way you understand them even after death. That this is one of the ways we continue to be connected to those we love.

Q: When did you first realize that your father was ill? How long did it take to diagnose his illness as Alzheimer's disease?
I think I had a sense fairly soon after my mother's death in 1979 that something was powerfully wrong with my father. He was sixty-five then, and Alzheimer's disease wasn't the first thing I thought of—in fact, depression was. But over time it seemed clear that some degenerative process was at work in him. He wasn't diagnosed, though, until 1986. This was mostly because it wasn't until then that he moved near enough to one of us—my sister, at that point—for her to take charge of seeking a diagnosis. Before then, he'd been in charge of his own medical care, and it seemed he didn't ask about his failures in a way that could have led to being tested.

Q: What aspect of caring for your father was most difficult?
There was no aspect that wasn't difficult, as everything was colored by the illness, even idle moments, even small decisions—to say nothing of large ones. But there were many moments too which were genuinely pleasurable, even towards the end.

Q: Did you ever have a moment when you thought you couldn't handle the responsibility of caring for him?
No. There were moments when I wished I didn't have to, moments when I didn't think I was doing a good job. But I never thought I couldn't do it.

Q: Your father was a minister. What role did his spirituality play as the disease progressed?
This is hard for me to know, exactly. I think early on it helped him enormously to accept that he was ill, and to accept the changes in his life we had to make because of his illness. I'm not sure what it consisted in as he grew more demented—whether you could have said he was still a Christian, for instance. Or a believer, in anything like the way he'd once been. Whether he felt the presence of God, as he'd been sure he did earlier in his life. But he could always be comforted by the language of religion, by prayer in a familiar form, by passages from the Bible read aloud. By hymns. There seemed to be something which stilled him and brought him peace in all of that.

Q: Do you worry that one day your son may have to care for you in the same way?
Of course.

Q: Do you also wonder how he'll remember you?
I don't, really. I feel that my son knows me well—I would say, that he understands me, in most ways. I don't know what changes age may bring to me, and certainly it seems entirely possible that I might eventually end up being changed profoundly, in the way my father was. What my son may make of that, if it happens, will be part of who he is and has become, as well as part of who I am and have been with him.

Q: Like your novels, there are many levels to this book. It seemed a journey for you, but also a tribute to your father. Do you think you wrote the book more for yourself, or for your father?
I think that moved and shifted, more than several times, as I worked through the writing of the book. In the end, I suppose, I think that every book a writer writes, she writes for herself. But I was aware of hoping, as I finished the final revision, that it was a book my father would have liked, would have seen a justification for.

Q: Are you working on a new novel?
I am. Though I've been slow to turn to it.

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The Story of My Father 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
tymfos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I don't read a lot of memoirs, so I'm probably a poor person to review one. I don't know if this is good or bad, as the genre goes; but it was a compelling read, which I felt I wanted to stay up and finish.It's hard to talk about "enjoying" a book like this. The prospect of oneself or a loved one developing Alzheimers is quite naturally terrifying to most people, I think. Certainly it is to me: my family history -- and therefore my likely gene-pool -- is loaded with the dread disease.Miller gives us a picture of who her father was before Alzheimer's began to chip away at his identity: a respected church history scholar, a loving (though sometimes absent) father; a man of deep faith and conviction. She ponders when the disease started -- were there traits present long before the obvious? Was his personality shaped by a predisposition to the disease? Then she gently documents the details as his personality eroded and shattered bit by bit. She shares her confusion in how to respond to the disease and the situations it creates: she also expresses frustration with the lack of empathy and understanding for his condition among many of those "professionals" charged with his care.For all the sadness involved, the book is fascinating to read. Alzheimer's progresses differently in different people, depending on the parts of the brain damaged; Miller's father developed hallucinations/delusions fairly early on, but maintained his recognition of his family and friends almost to the end -- though the ultimate course of the disease was cut short by another fatal physical illness caught too late, likely cancer.Of course, Alzheimer's takes a terrible toll on all closely involved. Miller does not shy away from talking about her feelings, and her Afterword analyzes her motivations for writing the memoir in detail.A fascinating, though very sad, book.
TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a deeply affecting account of a father's descent into the vacancy of Alzheimer's as recounted by his daughter, who in this case is the bestselling author, Sue Miller. I was initially attracted to the book because of her name, since I have read with great pleasure at least four of her books of fiction. Miller recounts, in the Afterword, how difficult it was for her to write this book about her late father, and how many times she put it aside to pursue something else. But she continued to be drawn back to it over the years, seeing it perhaps as a kind of unfinished business that needed to be dealt with. Her mental health depended on it, and she also wanted to share her experiences with the last few years and death of her father in hopes that it might help others who have had to witness a beloved parent or relative succumb to Alzheimer's. Miller also did her homework over the years to learn as much as she could about Alzheimer's and the latest research and findings on this terrible disease. The information she shares in this regard is exceptionally well chosen and relevant. But it seemed to me the best parts of the book were when she recounted memories of her father's life and her own. Her father, who was an historian, teacher and a scholar at the University of Chicago and then Princeton Theological Seminary was always a distant and somewhat detached man, making close relationships problematic. His more flamboyant and gregarious wife (who predeceased him from a sudden heart attack) had always been in charge and overshadowed him in many ways in their family, making a close relationship between Miller and her father difficult, until after her mother was gone. And by then Nichols was already beginning to show early signs of the disease that would finally kill him. Miller obviously treasures the time she spent with her father, even the difficult and heartbreaking times near the end of his life. She wrote this book so that she would not forget those times - good and bad. In this respect her tribute to her father is reminiscent of another Alzheimer's memoir I read not long ago: In a Tangled Wood, by Joyce Dyer, which recounted her mother's struggle with the debilitating and deadly disease. Dyer noted near the end of her book how her friends urged her to take a trip, to get away after her mother had finally passed away and try to forget. But Dyer didn't. Instead she wrote the book and emphasized that she didn't ever want to forget a single thing that happened. It was her way of paying tribute to a mother who had, finally and tragically, forgotten everything.I think perhaps Sue Miller was trying to do the same thing with The Story of My Father. In any case, she has certainly honored a father who continues to loom large in her inner landscape. If I have any complaints at all about this book it is that there is not enough about Miller herself. Perhaps that will come in another memoir at a later time. I hope so. In the meantime, I will highly recommend this book to anyone who has struggled with the specter of Alzheimer's in their family, as well as to fathers or daughters who continue to grapple with with that particularly puzzling relationship between a father and a daughter. This is a book worth reading.
inangulocumlibro on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I 'read' this book from an audio book read by the author. The book is a memoir of her father's life as a scholar of Christianity but, above all, a story told of his old age years. A sad description of the destruction that Alzheimer brings to a fine person.Sue Miller is very good at entering into the mechanichs of a relationship-altering illness. She is as lost as any care-giver of this horrible illness. Do you play along with the demented stories and hallucinations? do you value keeping reality and truth above all? Is is better to concede to the fictional - and at timed contented - life of a demented person or do you force reality on them?A book recommended to all those who have to cope with caring for a person stricken by Alzheimer disease.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the first book by Sue Miller that I have read. I work in Cambridge in outpatient psychiatry as a medical secretary so I was really impressed with her beautiful story/explanation of Alzheimer's Disease. I fell in love with her father. It sounds like they were very lucky to have each other. I can't wait to read another book of hers but I hate to see this one end. This is a book that I will buy three copies of and give them to my grown children just in case they ever have to deal with this in our family. Her father would be very proud of her.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been a fan of Sue Millers for several years. While searching the internet to see if she had written a book I had not yet read I discovered this treasure. I was and am presently the caregiver to a beloved aunt with this dreadful disease. Her book has given me more inspiration than any other material or books I've read thus far. She tells us in her book she was seeking a sort of release or letting go and she felt her writing her fathers life story, his struggle with Alzheimers, and her role as daughter and primary caregiver might help her to find the resolution she was seeking. She has helped all the caregivers out there that will pick up the book and read it. This story is touching, real, and lovingly written by a daughter that happens to be a truly acceptional author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am also the child of an ALZ afflcted parent. Finding out one is not alone is the greatest hope. Inspirational!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I stumbled into my local Barnes and Noble's after work earlier this week, because traffic was so bad. I figured I'd give it time to die down a bit before I finally headed home. It was either there or the video store. But, the video store was on the other side of the road. So, my choice was easy. Anyway, the very first display I encountered had Sue Miller's new book 'The Story of My Father' prominently featured. My own father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, so the title alone appealed to me. But, after reading the dustjacket, I knew it was going home with me. Miller's very down-to-earth style of writing made the book a quick read. Indeed, I finished it just 5 hours later. And, what an experience it was! Perhaps, the book's appeal was due to the turmoil my family and I are currently going through. I could certainly identify with the theme. But, I can honestly say that I haven't enjoyed reading anything as much as I did that night. I have no doubt that 'The Story of My Father' was better than any DVD I could have rented that night. And, I actually found myself talking about it with my friends, co-workers, and family members as if it had been a feature film. ('Parts of it made me laugh, parts of it made me cry, etc.') I would highly recommend Miller's book--and not only to those who have dealt with or are currently confronting AD. Don't wait for her to write a screen adaptation!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Seems to be a perfectly honest account of her personal experience with parent's decline. Not overdone or underdone--a perfect balance in the telling of her experience. A totaly different perspective and it actually gave more information than a strictly 'self-help' book would do for someone dealing with similar situation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would like to get this book in Spanish, has it been published in Spanish.